Indigenous Graduation Celebration, MacEwan University, Alumni Award, Blanket Ceremony

My (Mallory) Keynote Speech delivered at MacEwan University's kihew waciston Indigenous Graduation Celebration 2024

This month, I had the immense honour of being celebrated with a blanket ceremony at MacEwan University. I was invited to deliver the keynote address at the event hosted by kihew waciston (Eagle's Nest) Indigenous Students Centre. It was a deeply emotional speech that I hope resonates with many Indigenous graduates this month. I've included my speech below if you’d like to read it or share it with graduates who might benefit from my words this June.

Following the keynote, two awards were announced. The first was the Indigenous Graduate Award, given to Kelsey Sorensen. The second was the Indigenous Alumni Award, which was awarded to myself. I was in disbelief and beyond grateful for this incredible honour. After blanketing us with custom MacEwan University Pendleton blankets, we were gifted with an honour song. Seeing my community standing in our honour, with many friends and family from my nation in Saddle Lake and the MacEwan faculty, staff, and students, was one of the most beautiful memories I will cherish forever.

I share this award with my team at Indigenous Box and for all of you, our community of supporters. I look forward to proudly displaying our new blanket at our headquarters.

 

My Keynote Speech delivered at MacEwan University's kihew waciston Indigenous Graduation Celebration 2024

Story is powerful. The stories we are told become the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves become who we are. 

As a little girl, I used to dream of coming to Edmonton. I only came a few times, driving 2 hours from our home in Saddle Lake Cree Nation. Edmonton, in my mind, was a place of fun and adventure. When my mom and dad brought us kids to Edmonton we went to Bullwinkles, we played games and they let us eat junk food. Edmonton is where we came to buy a trampoline. In my mind, Edmonton was a place where you could do anything, a place where you could have a lot of friends. 

We even had a little song we would sing…. (Mallory sings in Cree)

When I moved here at age 16 to stay with my sister, I found something else instead. Edmonton was scary. The people were harsh and cold. Nobody would talk to me. They stared at me, giving me dirty looks. They sneered and scoffed at me. Or they were scared of me. When I went into stores the security guards would follow me around until I left. I went to get a haircut but the hairdresser refused to serve me. She said because I probably had head lice. I felt dirty, and little. I felt alone. I knew that people like me don’t belong here.

My first time coming to MacEwan (University) was as a fancy shawl dancer dancing in the gymnasium with my high school dance troupe. As I looked around at all of the students, with their book bags full of textbooks, I was amazed. I thought “how lucky are they? They must be so smart”.

You see, I always loved school, I loved to read and learn, but school didn’t love me. When I went into high school in St. Paul, the town near my reserve, the school pre-selected my classes. They put me in the math class for people with special needs. I didn’t understand why; I did really well in junior high math. But I didn’t question it.  If they thought that I was supposed to be in that class then they must be right. I realized “I must not be very smart”. Not like the other kids. 

The stories I was told made it clear what my future held. I was destined to be a high school dropout, after all, Indigenous students have the lowest high school completion rates. I would probably be stuck in a life of violence. 1 in 5 Indigenous women face violence before the age of 18. Maybe I wouldn’t make it at all. Indigenous youth are victims of suicide more than any other population. If I did make it, I knew I was destined for poverty. After all, our population has the highest rates of people living in poverty.

So when I danced into MacEwan I was amazed, but I wasn’t inspired. Because I knew in my heart that I wasn’t good enough to be a student here. I wasn’t smart enough. I knew that people like me don’t go to school at places like this.

Story is powerful. The stories we are told become the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves become who we are. 

So why am I here, in front of you now? How did I get here? If I didn’t belong here and I wasn’t smart enough, then how did I graduate near the top of my class in a math focused degree…a  Bachelor of Commerce in Supply Chain Management? 

Sometimes the stories we are told aren’t true or if they are true, sometimes they aren’t the whole story. Sometimes, unfair as it is, the burden falls on us to  write our own stories. 

Because when we choose the stories we tell ourselves, we change our lives.

So why exactly did MacEwan ask me to speak to you today?

It’s because of something that I did that grew from the seeds that I planted, watered, and tended to here at MacEwan University. I built a company called Indigenous Box, because I knew there was so much more to the story of Indigenous peoples than most people knew.

Indigenous Box, if you didn’t know, is a pioneering social-impact gifting service and retailer, dedicated to championing Indigenous businesses and furthering economic reconciliation by strengthening supply chains and expanding market reach. 

Founded in 2021 by my husband Kham And I, we had a vision of creating a platform that would build bridges between grassroots Indigenous businesses and socially-minded corporate, non-profit, government buyers, and private consumers across Turtle Island and around the world.

We knew we had a strong mission, we needed to put it into writing: In March of 2021, late at night, sitting on our basement floor, we lit a smudge and wrote. We started writing our own story. And by doing so, started charting our own course.

That night we wrote our mission statement, which I’ll share with you now. 

“Indigenous Box’s mission is to promote and elevate the good work being done by Indigenous Entrepreneurs. You can bet that we are going to make as big of a noise as we possibly can, as far and wide as we possibly can.

Our company champions Indigenous people’s true legacy: Our ingenuity; our resourcefulness; our industriousness; our intentionality; our purposefulness; our ability; our cooperation;...slow our greatness.

We are guided by values based on the teachings of shared abundance through reciprocity and connectedness. At our core is a commitment to transparency, fairness, humility, continuous learning, and bold action”

We are not only building bridges, but we are moving the two worlds closer together. We aren’t just selling products, we are in the business of growing people. 

Our theory was that if we do business with an abundance mindset, where we would work together with our suppliers and help them grow their capacities, then when we would succeed together. We wanted to do our part to seed intergenerational business knowledge into our communities. We wanted to develop the Indigenous supply chain. 

We decided to believe that our vision was not only possible but necessary. And overdue. This company would operate at the nexus of traditional values and modern efficiency. We wanted to bring Indigenous goods to market at scale, with love, good intentions, and great care, and in doing so, grow capacity for Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Armed with the conviction of our mission, we took our $5000 seed investment and turned it into an enterprise with a multi-million dollar economic footprint in 3 years. Our theory was correct. 

With our relationship centered approach, we’ve served over 600 organizations, and thousands of customers making us Canada’s corporate and non-profit gift of choice and the top of mind Indigenous goods retailer. 

How did we grow so fast? Because now is the time for Indigenous revival. Because the tides are turning for Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island, it’s happening because we are demanding change. It’s because the determination and resistance of our ancestors is reaching critical mass. The vibrancy and talent of our youth is undeniable. And because all of you, here today,  part of the fastest growing population segment in Canada, YOU who embody all the hopes and dreams of your ancestors, are a force that cannot be stopped. 

You are the product of generations of resilience and resistance, and whether or not you can feel it today, you carry that strength deep inside you. 

I didn’t feel that strength inside me. I didn’t know it was there. In fact, I barely started this journey at MacEwan. Why would I if I wasn’t smart enough? If I wasn’t good enough. What would be the point if I didn’t have what it takes to succeed?

It took me a long time to get here. And I am grateful and blessed to have had some key people in my life who thought that I was capable. I didn’t believe them at first. What I did believe was that I am a hard worker. So I worked hard. As a waitress, as a bartender, detailing cars, any job I could get. Bit by bit, I realized I was actually really good at working. Maybe I could do more. When I finally gathered the courage to apply for MacEwan something happened that shocked me: I got accepted

And when the time arrived to begin my first semester, I showed up, I worked hard, and little by little I started winning. I started to rediscover my love for learning. And I found there were others here like me, some were students, others were advisors and elders at kihew waciston. They believed I could do it. 

My dear friend and mentor, the late Roxanne Tootoosis was one of those. She reminded me to be proud of who I am, to stand tall, to speak our language and to take up space. She helped me to see my value and through her stories, I found my courage. 

In fact, right before our launch in her own loving and caring way, she delivered this handmade skirt (in the pouring rain, I might add) to wear as my power suit when I really needed the courage. Her ribbon skirt gave me an added superwoman strength when I was scared. It was exactly what I needed that day. I still wear it when I need extra courage.

Roxanne and others helped me unlearn what I had internalized as a young student in St. Paul,  it was never about whether or not others were smarter than me, or ‘better’ than me. That’s not how this works. There is no competition against anyone else. Nobody is better than you or smarter than you. They helped me realize that it was my journey and no one else's. I learned that if you believe something is possible and you keep working, and refuse to quit, then you can achieve it. I learned that the most important thing is ahkameyimok Persevere, don’t give up, keep going. Even if you feel deep down that what is being asked of you is impossible, just   don’t   stop   trying. 

Now, years later, I realized something that I want to share with you. The truth is, the feeling that you are up against insurmountable odds doesn’t go away. As you grow your capacity, the challenges will also grow. When I face challenges at Indigenous Box that feel too big, too hard, or impossible to overcome, I often look back and reminisce about how much easier it was when I was in school. What seemed impossible then, is now the easy part that I yearn for. But I know now that this is what growth feels like. 

ahkameyimok… (translation: Persevere, Don't give up, all of you)

There is something else I want to share with you. Indigenous people carry the burden of having to exist in 2 worlds: we exist in the traditional world, within our communities and upholding our traditional values,  and we must survive in the colonial world, which was not designed for us. Navigating this, walking between the two worlds is one of our greatest challenges. At Indigenous Box, I’ve learned that I have the power, just as you all do, to create a new world, to take up a new space where our traditional values can be woven into the fabric of the modern world. For me that means doing business, in a way that values relationships and community first, while also creating real value and real economic prosperity. We are learning to use the modern tools of commerce, the skills I learned as a Supply Chain Management Major at MacEwan, to make and hold space for all of us. 

And I am not alone. There are many of us, past and present, those who walked this path before me and those who walk it with me now.  When we combine our traditional values and ways of knowing and being, with colonial education it creates a unique, unstoppable, power. 

I am reminded of this when I see people like Dr. James Makokis bringing his unique perspective, traditional values and teachings to modern health practices. 

Or, Terri Cardinal who created community within the walls of this institution because she wanted students and other Indigenous people to realize their own belonging in these spaces. 

Or, Tia Wood who is predicted to become one of the biggest cross-over Indigenous pop-stars of our time, bringing traditional song and teachings to mainstream media.

All Saddle lakers I might add. 

All taking up space today, because of people before us who, against all odds, insisted on changing the course for their communities, and in doing so, for all of us. 

People like those here in treaty 6 who took up space by facilitating a 17 day sit in at Blue Quills, former residential school that resulted in it being turned over to First Nations people whose mission was to have our own children progress in the “white man’s education, while continuing to retain their dignity and self-respect as Indian people” that is now a thriving University that brings our values and teachings to spaces like this.

Or in that same year, the Treaty 6 Chiefs,  who traveled to Ottawa to deliver the red paper to parliament in efforts to maintain our rights as Indigenous people. They saw the intended and continued assimilation of our people and lead as another example of our own who unapologetically took up space in places that weren’t meant for us. 

Today, as you graduate and leave school behind, know that whatever lies ahead won’t be easy. It will be hard. Every new challenge may very well be the hardest thing you've ever done in your life. There will be those who believe that you don’t belong. But know that you have, inside yourself, vastly more power and ability than you can possibly imagine. There is more potential inside each of us than anyone could possibly use up in a lifetime. This means you have unlimited potential to become better, and, in turn, you have unlimited potential to make your life better. The fact that you are alive and here, graduating, today is a testament to the sheer will, perseverance, ingenuity and brilliance of your ancestors. And a testament to the strength that you carry in your DNA. You are your ancestors' wildest dreams. 

Story is powerful. The stories we are told become the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves become who we are. 

At the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, former Senator Murray Sinclair, took to the podium and before addressing the audience of officials and dignitaries, he spoke directly to the young Indigenous man who had led their procession in with song. He said “I want you to continue to walk tall and to sing loud my young friend. And I want you to do that forever, so that people will come to realize what could have always been, because of you”. 

Today… It's your turn... Now is your time… It’s time for you to walk tall and sing loudly alongside us.. It’s time for you to join us in carrying this burden… this heavy weight of change… It’s time for you to combine all of your new skills and knowledge with the traditional knowledge that is yours to inherit. 

Because together, we cannot be stopped, and we cannot be denied. I ask this of all of you. Come with us. Together we are going to change the world.

2 comments

You are really inspirational Mallory, I didn’t know about your hardships. But now I know better that you’re a warrior and a strong woman, full of enthusiasm and courage.

Suneet

Reading, I hear Mallory’s power. Her reminders of where we come from, the barriers we overcome, the stories, the people; we’re all in on this together. What a great orator you are Mallory!

Dale Steinhauer

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